Curriculum Opinion

Reflections from a Nasty Woman: What’s at Risk for Women Who “Come Forward”?

By Nancy Flanagan — October 21, 2016 5 min read
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Never let anyone say that this election season hasn’t been a remarkable series of teachable moments.

Just one example: the terms “rape culture” and “sexual assault” have become part of the ordinary-American lexicon, reinforced by behaviors of men in the highest realms of political and economic power. Using the theory that a negative cultural norm isn’t recognized until it’s dragged out into the open and dissected before our eyes, this is a good thing, even though men in both parties have been identified as abusers.

I remember sitting in the lounge at my middle school, January 2001, and having a woman I like and consider a good teacher exclaim--after Dubya was finally declared president-by-chad-- “Doesn’t it feel good to have a nice, respectable family in the White House?” It didn’t feel all that great to me--and that feeling grew worse and worse, as we rolled through 9/11, Abu Ghraib, the Iraq war and the financial meltdown.

Still--she was right. It is undeniable that character matters greatly in public leadership. Women who recognize and call out sexism and the sometimes-subtle aspects of rape culture are correct. And it isn’t until the moral rot is laid bare and understood that we have any chance of living in a better, safer, more equitable world. We’re not there yet, as this election illustrates.

I did my student teaching in the mid-1970s. I was assigned to a male band director (they were 98% male, back then), who told me at our first meeting that he was accepting me as student teacher because he needed a free assistant (he had a top leadership position in the state organization for instrumental music teachers which took him to many conferences and meetings). He said that he never would have consented to taking a woman as student teacher--the university had merely asked him if he was interested, and he made the assumption that, naturally, I would be a young man, ready and willing to do the things he didn’t have time to do for a semester.

He repeated those remarks to the audience at my first concert. By then, it had become a polished story--"I said yes--and then they told me it was a woman!” (Audience hilarity)--and I was making the morning coffee, re-ordering the music files and writing his monthly columns (the man couldn’t construct a coherent sentence) for the state organization newsletter.

I was also being sexually harassed, and bribed by the promise of a good evaluation and letters of recommendation, something that I very much needed.

I put up with it for about a month, making up excuses to leave early so we wouldn’t be alone together. He grew more aggressive. Finally, I went to the student teaching supervisor from my university. I have repressed a lot of memories about that time--but I can remember that meeting as if it were last week. The supervisor, behind his large polished-wood desk, wearing a red ski sweater. Behind him, multiple holiday photos of his family, in front of a fireplace, the lovely wife and four children.

I told the story, in detail. He leaned back, hands folded over his chest. “Are you sure you’re not leading him on?” he asked. Then he ticked off the reasons why he would not recommend another placement: It was too late, and would cost me another semester in time and fees. Nobody would take me, once the story of my accusation became public--and it surely would, possibly all over the state given the man’s public profile. I would be seen as a too-sensitive whiner in a male-dominated field.

I thought you wanted to be a lady band director, he said. This is what it’s like. Either handle it yourself, or drop out now.

So I handled it, as best I could. I can’t say I learned anything about being an excellent music educator during the remaining three months--the man never turned his classes over to me, not even for a single rehearsal. His pedagogy was best described as the Blood and Thunder School of band directing: intimidation and humiliation.

I worked individually with students in the practice rooms (where I learned, from a sweet flute player, that Mr. Exemplary Band Director was also having sex with his students). The one time I was allowed to stand on his podium and conduct a number, he stalked around behind me, making faces and mocking my conducting.

I got through, by “ignoring” lots and lots of grabbing and kissing. I had proof that telling anyone what was going on would reflect badly on me--that I would be the spiteful “nasty woman” who was seeking to take down someone who had earned his considerable fame.

I got a job far away from the man, in spite of his mediocre evaluation (which specified that I would be best placed as an elementary music teacher, as secondary band directors needed more, shall we say, stamina than I had). I built a successful, 30-year career. When I saw him at music conferences, I avoided him.

Famous Band Director lost his job--very publicly--about a decade later, when a student finally came forward, supported by her parents, to report that he had lured her into a sexual relationship. He denied it, in the newspaper article, then pointed out that the school had one of the state’s top band programs--all because of him.

Mostly, I stopped thinking about him. About two years ago, after community band rehearsal, one of my colleagues, a man I deeply respect, caught up with me after rehearsal, asking “Did you hear that [Famous Band Director] died?”

The first words out of my mouth were: I hope he rots in hell.

Taking a deep breath, I mentioned I’d done my student teaching with the man. My friend already knew--the man had been having breakfast regularly with a group of retired band directors, and had talked about me. Explaining why this monster had been invited to the breakfast club, my friend said “We took pity on him.”

I realized that the Band Director’s breakfast companions had been fed a fabricated storyline about me, too. I was a “nasty woman.” I felt like I was going to vomit.

Anita Hill is right--we should be focused on the victims of sexual assault, and not the perpetrators. Election events in 2016 have caused residual anger and shame to bubble up for many women--Hillary Clinton was spot-on when she said that every woman can relate to that anger and shame.

We’re talking about a real thing, a core issue in American society, and American schools. Such revelations might be a silver lining in a detestable political season.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.